AT Christmastime 100 years ago, leading Darlingtonians were trying to work out how they might memoralise their most famous soldier who had fallen in the mud of northern France.

The town’s MP and mayor suggested setting up a national fund in memory of Brigadier-General Roland Bradford, 25, who had been killed by a stray shell on November 29, 1917.

Herbert Pike Pease MP put £100 into the fund and said “one gentleman had written from Penzance offering £5, and he believed there were people residing in all parts of the Empire who would be glad to express their appreciation”.

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There was debate about the form of the memorial, and already there was a suggestion that it might “take the form of a new hospital or an enlargement of the present one” – Darlington Memorial Hospital, of course, opened in 1933, entered via the Bradford Porch.

Little did the civic dignitaries know, though, that even in death, the hero soldier was himself creating an abiding memory.

Roland, born in Witton Park, near Bishop Auckland, had become the area’s hero on October 1, 1916, by leading two battalions of the local regiment, the Durham Light Infantry, to safety under fire. His bravery had won him the Victoria Cross, but his concern for his men had won their undimming respect – an affection that was shared by those at home.

On October 29, 1917, he was promoted and, at the age of 25, became the youngest-ever brigadier-general in the British Army. This meant he had to leave the 9th Durham Light Infantry to command the 186th Brigade, which was also serving in northern France.

As a keepsake for his DLI men, he ordered a London printer – Raphael Tuck & Sons – to produce 3,000 copies of an A4-sized card of Jesus appearing to a soldier with the words “Abide With Me”.

Abide With Me was the regimental hymn which Bradford sang with his men every night in the trenches and before going into battle. It showed them that even in the loneliest moments as they went over the top, God was with them (the words were written by Henry Lyte in 1847 three weeks before he died of tuberculosis so First World War soldiers would have shared the shadow of death that hung over him as he wrote).

Roland intended the mini-poster to be distributed to every man who had served with him.

“I do not wish it to be a Christmas card, but a souvenir picture from me to my lads,” he wrote.

But his death intervened.

On December 21, the printer wrote to Roland’s mother, Amy, in Milbank Road, Darlington, asking if she wished the order to go ahead.

Amy agreed – she may even have upped the number printed to 10,000 – and in the new year, every DLI soldier who had had contact with Roland received the memento.

They were prized possessions – like Alan Shearer producing a limited edition artwork for every fan who’d seen him score at St James’ Park – and for many years after the war they could be found hanging in homes across Durham.

One of the originals is in the new exhibition, which looks at the DLI and music, in Bishop Auckland Town Hall.

THAT exhibition reveals that Abide with Me was the Durhams’ hymn before it was championed by Roland Bradford.

It was a hymn that was resonance with the working class – hence its adoption at the FA Cup final from 1927 – and especially with the Durham miners who must have felt, like the soldiers in the trenches, that they worked with the shadow of death hanging over them.

It became the anthem of the DLI on May 24, 1915 when 7DLI came under gas attack for the first time while fighting near Ypres. The German had only been using low-hanging chlorine gas for a month, and the British soldiers had no defence against it.

The Sunderland men of 7DLI were commanded by Colonel Ernest Vaux, the grandson of the founder of the famous brewery.

As the yellow-green cloud approached the unprotected Durhams, there was great consternation. Vaux ordered his men out of the trenches and onto the parapet. “'It's no use running,” he shouted. “Come up here and sing a hymn.”

And so – perhaps for the first time on the battlefield – they sang Abide With Me.

The low-hanging gas passed beneath them. Not a single Durham died. It was known as “the Miracle of Ypres” and a copy of a painting of the incident, not seen publicly for 70 years, is in the free exhibition, When the Bugle Calls, which runs until March 11.

COLONEL VAUX was a remarkable soldier. He was mentioned seven times in despatches during the Boer War, and the safe return from South Africa of himself and his Durham men who operated a Maxim machine gun led the family brewery to produce the country’s first brown ale, called Double Maxim, in commemoration.

Vaux survived the First World War until April 1918 when he got dysentery and he was invalided home to Brettonby, a manor house on the edge of Barton, between Darlington and Scotch Corner. In 1925, a dinner party at Brettonby went tragically wrong and the old soldier choked on a rabbit bone and died.

THE Northern Echo’s editorial of Christmas Eve 1917 began: “Is it possible for us to celebrate Christmas? Can we – ought we – let this Prince of Festivals take us out of ourselves?”

It said: “There are too many vacant chairs for most of us to desecrate the memories of the dead with thoughts of merriment.”

Yet the editor drew comfort from the image of Mary in the stable with her baby. He wrote: “Thirty-three years later, that mother had learned what sacrifice could mean. The love she had showered upon that gentle soul had blossomed into the fairest flower this world has ever known, and it was her fate to see it bruised, crushed and thrown to the dust. Yet that love died not…”

He concluded: “The more fiercely rage the frosty gales, the more sure we may be that Love will divide the encircling bands and rise to meet the sun, encircling once more the world as in a bath of vapour and clothing it as with a living mantle of green. Such may be the message of Christmas to those who have the ears to hear, despite the roaring of the guns.”

As Brig-Gen Roland Bradford would have had his men singing: “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

In the darkness of Christmas 1917, no one eating their pud of rehydrated crusts bulked out with mashed potato can have known that the Christmas message of hope would come true and within a year they would be celebrating victory.

PAGE IN HISTORY: Over the page, we have a huge advert for a national chemist that appeared several times in the Echo in the run-up to Christmas 1917. It's a powerful picture of a mother and a young child reaching out hopefully to a dreamlike vision of brave soldiers, good times and Father Christmas. Of course, other chemists exist.